DURHAM, N.C. – The hard realization of Thursday’s fallout may not have taken hold until the final Duke kneel down, which freed the Blue Devils from their sideline with the Victory Bell as their destination.
North Carolina had been in this position two times before in ACC play, trailing by a small margin of points with under two minutes to play. Mitch Trubisky had rallied the Tar Heels in the final moments against Pittsburgh and Florida State for dramatic finishes. And it was those shared experiences that kept hope alive as UNC’s defense finally got a stop and handed the ball back to its offense.
The prospect of losing a rivalry game and handing the ACC Coastal Division to Virginia Tech may have been present, but it was just noise rumbling in the distance.
“I thought we were going to go down and score,” Larry Fedora told reporters after his team’s 28-27 loss at Wallace Wade Stadium.
And so it was that reality set in as Carolina blue spray paint cans were left unused on the sideline as the Blue Devils rang the Victory Bell for the first time since 2013 as fans rushed the field.
UNC’s second primetime showcase on ESPN this season ended similarly to its first one against Georgia on Labor Day weekend. Against middling teams, the Tar Heels coughed up double-digit leads and failed to make enough plays to deliver a statement to a national audience. It was understandable that Fedora and his players were rather despondent in the aftermath.
“We got outcoached, we got outplayed, and that’s my responsibility,” the fifth-year UNC head coach said.
Five days removed from playing its most complete game of 2016, the Tar Heels failed to match Duke’s intensity on Senior Night, even after an explosive start that built a seemingly comfortable 14-0 lead late in the first quarter. When asked if UNC stepped off the accelerator after that early lead, quarterback Mitch Trubisky replied, “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
Despite the deficit, it was Duke’s coaching staff that made the necessary adjustments and Duke’s players that executed with precision, scoring 28 points on four red zone trips while holding UNC to 13 points on its final nine possessions.
“We just didn’t do a good job of coming out with energy,” defensive tackle Nazair Jones said. “We went up a couple of scores and then let up.”
During a short week filled with nonsensical drama surrounding the paint scheme of the Victory Bell, the Tar Heels preached the importance of excellence, well aware that they had no margin of error in their hopes to win the Coastal and return to the ACC Championship Game on Orlando next month.
The disconnect between those words and their play in Durham left the players befuddled.
“All I can say is they outplayed us,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “That’s all it was. We had energy, we had that spark and we never got complacent. They just outplayed us and outcoached us.”
The rivalry aspect of the loss overshadowed the magnitude of the upset. Since 1960, UNC has played 88 games in which it was ranked No. 15 or higher. Thursday’s loss was only the eighth time in that stretch that the Tar Heels had lost to an unranked opponent. Duke entered the game as the lone ACC team without a conference win.
From a season perspective, the loss dismantled UNC’s goal chart. The state championship has been crossed out, while the Coastal Division crown and ACC Championship Game appearance are circled in red, essentially but not technically dead. UNC has to beat N.C. State and Virginia Tech must lose to both Georgia Tech and Virginia for a rematch with No. 2 Clemson.
“We have very slim chances of winning the Coastal now, but we can’t blame it on anybody but ourselves,” Jones said. “We shot ourselves in the foot way too many times tonight.”
Or, as Trubisky put it: “We missed a big opportunity.”
Even without the possibility to play for the ACC championship, the Tar Heels were in position to challenge for a New Year’s Eve bowl game provided they won out and posted a 10-2 regular season record. The odds are now long for a high-profile bowl game.
All that’s left is one final team goal, which is to win the final game of the season. The Citadel and the Wolfpack come first, and personal pride may be the determining factor in those outcomes.